Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo

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Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Nurse Montgomery goes to Bleakly Hall to confront her past but instead the past confronts her, along with some very eccentric people. Funny but also poignant, this thought-provoking book has hidden depths.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Vintage Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099513476

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Nurse Montgomery (Monty to her friends) and daring ambulance driver, Ada, met in Belgium during World War I. They worked as a team collecting the injured from the front line, dodging snipers and shells and ignoring social standards that accompanied the class system of the day. Monty may have been Ada's social 'superior' but such things were irrelevant whilst they faced death on an hourly basis. After the war Monty comes to work at Bleakly Hall, a hydropathic or country house hotel specialising in hydro therapies for the rich and ailing and is reunited with Ada, working as a mechanic and all-round assistant.

At Bleakly class will out, but the world is changing faster than some would like. Meanwhile Monty has unfinished business with Captain Peter Foxley, long-term Bleakly resident and the person Monty holds responsible for the death of her dear Sophia. Foxley certainly seems to be erratic and, perhaps dangerous, but he has a permanent place at Bleakly due to some kind of hold he has over the Hall's owners Curran and Grier Blackwood.

This is a wonderful book, packed with eccentric characters making Bleakly Hall seem, on first glance, a 1920s Fawlty Towers. The reader soon realises that this comparison is only superficial. This is indeed a funny book, but darkly so, the tragedy of war and its after effects lurking close by. The author, Elaine di Rollo, makes sure the reader realises this by alternating chapters. First a lighter chapter or two (at least to begin with) set in the book's 1920s present, and then this is brought into sharp relief by a chapter of flashback to the characters' experiences during the war. The past and the present co-exist, showing us the peacetime personality along with the wartime experiences that still shape them.

Ms di Rollo's PhD in history is evident but she uses her knowledge with a deft lightness of touch. What begins as a jolly romp, almost farcical in places, opens up to deal with some major themes and release a rainbow of emotions from both character and reader. The obvious theme of the futility of war is there, but also that of forgiveness and reconciliation amongst those who were meant to be on the same side. Bleakly Hall is also permeated with loss: the loss of loved ones, yes, but also the loss of hopes and status that, for many at that time, evaporated at the end of hostilities. Some of these themes are historic (e.g. the crumbling of the English class system). Some, however, are timeless; remaining as pertinent now we are sending our young people to fight in Afghanistan as they were when we sent them to fight the 'Hun'. There are some things, it seems, history can't teach.

I would like to thank Vintage Books for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.

If you'd like to read more about the sort of world to which the soldiers returned in 1918, try the non-fiction The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson. If you would prefer more fiction about the period then, perhaps, The Cocaine Salesman by Conny Braam.

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Buy Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo at


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